Malaysia summons French diplomat over alleged anti-Islam speech

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s foreign ministry said it had summoned France’s charges d’affaires in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday to express concern over alleged hate speech and defamation of Islam.

The Southeast Asian nation was among several Muslim-majority countries that have denounced remarks by French officials, including President Emmanuel Macron, defending the display of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a French school classroom. The caricatures are seen as blasphemous by Muslims.

In its meeting with French charge d’affaires Gilles Barrier, the ministry strongly condemned “any inflammatory rhetoric and provocative acts that seek to defame the religion of Islam”, it said in a statement.

“Malaysia is of the view that such elevated tension does not bode well for the peaceful co-existence of all religions.”

Malaysia was committed to upholding freedom of speech and expression “as long as these rights are exercised with respect and responsibility in order to not infringe on or violate the rights of others”, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in a separate statement.

“In this context, to denigrate and tarnish Islam’s Holy Prophet and to associate Islam with terrorism are certainly beyond the scope of such rights.”

Representatives from parties in Malaysia’s ruling coalition, the United Malays National Organisation and Islamist party PAS, have also submitted memorandums of protest to the French Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

In a statement, the embassy defended Macron’s remarks, saying they were not aimed at the Muslim community at large but at the ideology of “radical Islamism”.

The dispute flared after a French teacher who, during a civics lesson, showed his pupils cartoons of the Prophet published in the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was beheaded in the street by an attacker of Chechen origin.

French officials said the beheading was an attack on the core French value of freedom of expression and defended the right to publish the cartoons.

In the days that followed, the caricatures were projected onto the facade of a building in one city and people displayed them at protests around the country. Macron said he would redouble efforts to stop conservative Islamic beliefs subverting French values.

Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Mark Heinrich